Dame Fanny Waterman

Inspirational piano teacher who dreamed up the Leeds International Piano Competition


She was renowned across the musical globe as the founder of the Leeds International Piano Competition. Dame Fanny Waterman, who has died at the age of 100, was a pianist and teacher who lived all her long life in Leeds, and wielded profound and extensive influence through the celebrated contest. It developed an unrivalled reputation for musical integrity over the decades, bringing to prominence as winners or finalists artists including Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia, Mitsuko Uchida, András Schiff and more recently Federico Colli and Eric Lu, to name but a few.

Fanny Waterman was born in 1920 into a Russian Jewish family in Leeds. Her father Myer Wasserman was born in 1892 in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev; after a devastating pogrom he came to the UK in 1909. He became a jeweller and married Mary Behrman, who shared his Russian Jewish origins. Fanny, their second child, recalled watching her father’s expert handling of tiny jewels and credited this for her understanding of Mozart: – “the exactness of it and the precision with which he worked” – as she said in her autobiography. Although she was not religiously observant, she never lost her affection for Jewish culture.

Her musical education ranged from playing hymns on the piano at school to hearing the greatest musicians of the day when they visited Leeds Town Hall, including Sergei Rachmaninov, Alfred Cortot and Fritz Kreisler. She studied in London with Tobias Matthay and at the Royal College of Music with Cyril Smith, but insisted that the most crucial element of her training was her determination to teach, herself. In 1942 she performed at the Proms, with Sir Henry Wood conducting.

She married Dr Geoffrey de Keyser in 1944; they raised two sons, Paul and Robert. Geoffrey was devoted to his Yorkshire patients, and she was happy to stay there rather than move to London, establishing herself as a sought-after piano teacher. During the 1950s she trained four young pianists under the age of 11 to such a high standard that they were invited to perform concertos at the Royal Festival Hall. They were Allan Schiller, Wendy Waterman (Dame Fanny’s niece), Kathleen Jones and Michael Roll, who later became the first winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition itself. This caused quite some fuss, since he was the founder’s own pupil – but competitions can, and do, thrive on controversy.

The inspiration to create the competition came to her in 1961 in the middle of the night. Helped by her husband and her friend Marion Thorpe CBE, then the Countess of Harewood, she pressed ahead with the unlikely-seeming plan, holding the first competition in 1963. She remained its chairman and artistic director until her retirement in 2015, aged 95.

Despite her husband’s initial suggestion that such an event could only work in a city the size of London, Dame Fanny’s instinct for the advantages of Leeds proved correct: over the next few years the local volunteers who offered their supporting services were invaluable to the smooth running of the event, along with the network of sponsors, which included many members of the city’s close-knit Jewish community.

The volunteers reputedly called her ‘Field Marshal Fanny’, and indeed, much of the competition’s lengthy success story could be traced directly to its founder’s unique mix of indomitable willpower and charismatic charm, making up with her personality for what she lacked, at five foot two, in physical stature.

Dame Fanny served frequently on the juries of piano competitions around the world, including the Van Cliburn, Tchaikovsky, Horowitz, Chopin and Hamamatsu. For nine years she was vice-president of the International Federation of Music Competitions. She gave masterclasses on six continents and created a series of piano tutor books, Piano Lessons with Fanny Waterman /Marion Harewood, which ran to 30 volumes and sold more than three million copies worldwide, plus the much-loved beginners’ series, Me and My Piano. Her autobiography, My Life in Music, is published by Faber and Faber.

Among a shower of honours, she received for her services to music: an OBE in 1971, the CBE in 1999 and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2005, she was given her home town’s highest honour, the Freedom of the City of Leeds, in 2004.

Above all, Dame Fanny never lost her all-encompassing passion for music. Aged 95, in a JC interview with me, she demonstrated musical points at the piano, gazing up from the keyboard with beatific gaze and saying: “Music’s wonderful, isn’t it?” Dame Fanny died peacefully in her residential care home in Ilkley, Yorkshire. She is survived by her two sons, Robert and Paul, and six granddaughters.



Dame Fanny Waterman: born March 22, 1920. Died December 20, 2020


Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive